The Pine Barrens: The Burn
A smoke fog fills the woods.
Photos courtesy of Joseph Sapia
As the sunlight diminished, a sleek hawk of undetermined species flew across the Power Lines right-of-way, from the Swing Hill side toward Snuffy Hollow. A little after 6 p.m., it was quiet here in these Pine Barrens around Helmetta, basically only a cacophony of the jingle bells sound of spring peeper treefrogs calling from the wetlands, the peepers sound interrupted by the honking of Canada geese flying over Cranberry Bog. On the trail dividing Swing Hill and a swamp, one could feel the warmth of the woods. It was 70 degrees, an unseasonably warm spring night. Tomorrow, however, the heat would really be on.
Spring wildfire season
The winter of 2011-2012 had been generally snowless and warm. This day, March 15, is the traditional beginning of the Pine Barrens spring wildfire season, when winds blow, humidity decreases, temperatures rise, and sun penetrates the essentially leafless forest, warming and drying the duff . Combining the mild winter and the traditional beginning of the spring wildfire season meant the New Jersey Forest Fire Service was running out of time to continue its winter control-burning, the practice of basically burning duff and shrubs, eliminating fuel for wildfire to feed upon. Before the window closed, the Forest Fire Service was trying to do what it had planned: control-burning about 17 acres in the Middlesex County Parks and Recreation’s Jamesburg Park Conservation Area.
The target would be in the Swing Hill-Power Lines Area, from the overlook of Cranberry Bog to Lincoln Boulevard, here only a dirt road.
“It’s just a separated, unmonitored area,” Rick Lear of Middlesex County Parks and Recreation said, speaking at a later date. “It was a good place to start, get feet wet.”
Swing Hill has been a known partying area for years, where the remnant of a campfire is readily found. Its location leaves authorities at a disadvantage, the surrounding sand roads not conducive to use by conventional patrol vehicles and swamps guarding about half of it. So, John Rieth, a Forest Fire Service warden who until recently worked this area full-time, figured burning off the fuel that fuels the party fires might defuse the partying.
Also, the non-native, but naturalized, gypsy moth has caused severe tree damage, leading to dead trees that would fuel an inferno of a wildfire. This fire, under controlled conditions, would help eliminate that fuel.
“Fuel-hazard reduction,” said Rieth, noting the Forest Fire Service’s main interest in the burn.
On the flip side, the burn area was far enough from development, the closest being single-family houses about a half-mile-away. Also, the 17 acres was bounded by the wide Power Lines right-of-way, an old sand road between the tract and Cranberry Bog, and a wide path between the rising ground that would be burned and the swamp, this wide path running from the Cranberry Bog area to the intersection of Lincoln Boulevard and the Power Lines. In advance the Forest Fire Service bulldozed a road-wide “push line” around the 17 acres, along with a path-wide “plow line” basically bisecting the acreage, the idea of both being to get down to mineral soil, to create stopping points for fire along the ground.
Prior to the fire, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service bisected the tract with a plow-line, getting down to the non-burnable mineral soil, to control the fire along the ground. John Rieth leads Ray Hippeli, both of the Forest Fire Service, down the plow-line.
The New Jersey Forest Fire Service's IC, incident command, brush truck, B-10, heads along a "push line," a bulldozed area getting down to the non-burnable mineral soil. This push-line used existing sand roads and a path. Here, B-10 is below Swing Hill at the old Baron homestead.
“We call the perimeter the control lines,” said Trevor Raynor, the local warden who took Rieth’s place, here.
This would be the first-ever control-burn in the approximately 35 years Middlesex County Parks and Recreation has owned what is now the 1,500-acre conservation area. Rieth noted the Forest Fire Service has been pushing to control-burn in the Jamesburg Park Conservation Area for eight years.
“This is our first burn here, so we want to make a good impression,” Raynor said.
So, the area chosen was a good pilot area: not close to development, but a place where fire protection — against unauthorized partying and gypsy moth-ruined forest — could be argued for.
I had another interest: Pine Barrens fire ecology, something Rick Lear of Middlesex County Parks and Recreation noted his department was interested in, along with fuel-reduction.
Fire maintains the Pine Barrens ecology. In the foreground, a pitch pine, the common pine of the Pine Barrens.
With the underbrush and vegetative litter burned away, a forest floor conducive to re-birth has been created. Pine seeds litter charred ground, now filled with nutrients from a fire, and pine growth begins. (Some cones need about 120 degrees, or heat generated by a fire, to pop them open.)
Charred pines are not dead. Pine needles will sprout directly from the trunks, a head-start on oaks that will only grow from roots.
Insects will take over the dead hardwoods. Birds, such as woodpeckers, looking for a meal will follow. Woodpeckers will dig holes into the trees, looking for insects, and cavity-nesting birds will use them. Dead hardwoods will decompose, adding more nutrients to the soil.
This area, I suspect, will transform itself into more of a pitch pine woods, creating an ecologically valuable ecosystem. Perhaps rare plants such as pyxie, Pyxidanthera barbulata, will appear in the cleansed woods, just as it did years ago after a fire in the nearby Old Forge Road Pine Barrens.
Then, hardwoods will start growing again, looking to overtake the pines, staring the cycle again.
Additionally, a hot fire will rid the woods of improperly dumped garbage: beverage containers and household debris.
The fire exposed garbage from people visiting the woods. Take out of the woods what you bring in!
The group moved down Lincoln Boulevard to the Power Lines on the Monroe-East Brunswick boundary. There, at about 9:35 a.m., Raynor, the IC, or incident commander, began addressing the group, up to about 25 people, including Parks and Recreation staff.
Trevor Raynor, center, the B-10 section warden of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, was the fire's IC, incident commander.
Humidity was high. The forecast called for a maximum temperature of 67, 10 percent chance of rain, winds out of the east at 8 miles per hour in the morning, 10 in the afternoon. All this added up to a so-so day, humidity working against fire, wind working in favor of it.
“Watch for the overhead power lines,” Raynor said. “If the grass (underneath) gets going, put it out.
“Jamesburg’ll be up today,” added Raynor, referring to the Forest Fire Service’s Jamesburg Lookout Tower, about 2-1/2-miles-away, that would provide support. “B-10’ll” — Raynor’s brush truck — “be the IC truck.”
Another Forest Fire Service brush truck, B-25, would be the IA, or “initial attack,” truck, or the truck first responding to a wildfire call off-site.
“Keep your eyes on what is happening,” Rieth said. “There’s a lot of people here today.”
Firefighters began the burn, using gasoline-fueled drip torches, near the intersection of the Power Lines and Lincoln Boulevard, or at the opposite side of the 17 acres from Swing Hill. With this ground burned first, or burning toward the east, it provided a safe, burned-over area in case the wind took the fire from Swing Hill and got it rolling.
With a wind out of the east, firefighters began with a west-to-east burn from the west end of the 17-acre tract. This way, if the tract torched up and the easterly wind pushed the fire west, it would hit burned ground, reducing the threat.
“Get out of that smoke,” shouted firefighter Bob Stewart to another firefighter who was under the Power Lines.
The fire's southern perimeter was the Power Lines right-of-way. Firefighters had to be aware of heavy smoke in the power lines, because it could conduct the electricity to the ground.
The 17 acres was being burned in sections. And dressed in yellow fire-resistant coat and helmet, with hood and goggles attached, I followed Rieth into the burn. Although the flames hugged the ground, they kicked off greater heat than I expected.
Joe the Journalist takes notes in the midst of the control-burn. The state Forest Fire Service even let him torch his beloved Pine Barrens around Helmetta.
Photo courtesy of John Rieth of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service
Rieth directed me to use a drip-torch, noting the irony of me setting my beloved woods on fire.
If anything goes wrong, Rieth said, get rid of the torch into the woods.
A firefighter lights the control-burn using a gasoline-fueled drip torch.
The burn went smoothly. Now, to check the burn-area to see how it re-generates.
The control-burn cleared and charred the woods's understory, a precaution to protect the area if a wildfire broke out. The 17-acre burn area is part of the Jamesburg Park Conservation Area, owned by Middlesex County Parks and Recreation.
The burn turned out to be “cool,” or less intense: hardwoods not killed, unburned oak leaves littering the ground, shrub remnants still standing, the duff layer crunchy, rather than smoothly carpeted. Would this burn promote Pine Barrens fire ecology?
There were open areas for pitch pine growth. Fire did not open the forest canopy; The canopy simply was not there before the fire. Perhaps the blackened duff would support seeds from pitch pines..
Moss was both brown, deadened by heat damage, and green, untouched by the fire. Unfortunately, a tangle of briers was left standing, with apparent post-fire, brown growth of about 4 inches below charred stem.
Briers are growing after the fire judging by the fresh brown of 4 inches below the charred area. If the fire had been hotter, this tangle of briers would have been cleared.
“The big game is gone before we ever got here,” Raynor said, later. “The foxes, rabbits will run out. The snakes will go underground. The mortality is negligible. I just think of it as a circle of life. The hawk comes in….”
…Looking for small game in the open, burned area.
With the fire thinning out the lower woods layer, one could see the terrain had a nice roll of the land, more undulating than a simple drop into the floodplain.
Below Swing Hill, but above the floodplain, there was the remnant of a new party campfire – one burned wooden pallet in the remant, another leaning against a tree, ready to go. If the firefighters burn out the old campfire area along with the fuel, just move the site and cart fuel into the woods. Sheesh!
A reason this tract was selected for burning is Swing Hill is a known partying area with a campfire. Burning out the fuel could mean an end to the campfires and the partying. No such luck, the revelers moved the campfire from Swing Hill to below it and brought in fuel: one burned pallet, another one ready to go.
April 3, Tuesday
“Hershey bar (candy) wrappers, Coors (beer) bottles,” said Fire Warden Trevor Raynor, looking over the new campfire site, the unburned pallet gone – probably burned – and a cooler now sitting there.
On the actual burned area, Raynor made some observations.
“We didn’t really have any torch-out, where the whole tree’ll flame out,” said Raynor, noting the coolness of the burn.
Flames were, “on average, 2-, 3-feet,” with 10-foot-tall flames “the extreme highest,” Raynor said.
Looking back, Raynor said the firefighters probably could not have burned the area any hotter.
“It was humid, but the fuels were dry enough,” Raynor said.
But, Traynor said, the burn remained cool for various reasons – the fuel was less than in “a real thick pine stand,” along with firefighters not wanting to get a blaze going for safety reasons.
“Essentially, we burn it as hot and safely as we could,” Raynor said. “Some pine cones popped. I’m sure they’ll germinate.”
New Jersey Forest Fire Warden Trevor Raynor, who was in charge of the control-burn, holds two serotinous cones of the pitch pine. Serotinous cones need heat of about 120 degrees to pop open and release seeds. The one on the right remain closed, the one on the left opened.
April 11, Wednesday
“I find fire fascinating,” said Rick Lear of Middlesex County Parks and Recreation.
False-lily-of-the-valley, Maianthemum canadense, grows in the burn area.
“Blueberries coming in,” Lear said.
Rick Lear of Middlesex County Parks and Recreation, owner of the burn area, removes a party-site remnant, a cooler, from the site.
Although the burn was not as hot as I liked, it may have some ecological accomplishment. Time will tell.
“The most promising, we burned something,” said Rick Lear of Middlesex County Parks and Recreation. “We got the ball rolling. I just want to keep the momentum going.”
Joe Sapia, 55-years-old, is a native of and lives in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, where his family has resided for more than 100 years. He can be reached at Snufftin@aol.com or at P.O. Box 275, Helmetta, 08828.
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